New Chernobyls on Europe’s doorstep?

On January 29th EUToday hosted a conference at the Press Club, Brussels, concentrating on the new and proposed nuclear power plants in Belarus, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

Moderator Natalia Richardson drew parallels between the risks surrounding nuclear energy today, and the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, of which she, as a student in Ukraine at the time, had experience.

Keynote speaker Jutta Paulus, a German Green MEP who sits on the European Parliament's Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, told the conference that at present nuclear energy supplies around 10% of global demand for electricity. However, to maintain this level, taking into account rising demand and the decommissioning of existing reactors, new-builds will need to come online at the rate of 50 per year.

She highlighted in this context the fact that most of the existing 400 plus reactor plants in the world today are more than 30 years old, and now coming to the end of their lives.

In Belgium, from where the conference was hosted, the nuclear energy programme began relatively early, in 1952, with the country's first commercial nuclear power plant feeding into the grid in 1974. Belgium, which has seven reactors in two plants, at Brussels and Antwerp, has committed to phasing out nuclear energy by 2025.

In this, Belgium is following the lead of other EU member states Austria, Germany, Italy, and Sweden.

Lithuania, following a 2012 referendum in which 64.7% rejected a proposal for a new-build reactor, also appeared to be heading towards a nuclear free future. This ambition has been compromised however by the controversial and accident-prone Astavets plant in Belarus, close to the border with Lithuania, and just 50km from the capital city, Vilnius.

Public opinion.

Ms. Paulus referred in her presentation to the levels of opposition to nuclear power in Germany, and to the diversity of protestors who are a world away from the outdated stereo-type of "the left, the long-haired hippy".

In Belarus, in 2008, anti-nuclear activists handed a petition to President Lukashenko, calling him to the site. Media coverage of this led quickly to their persecution by the government, with the organisers being searched, fined, and detained.

When construction began on Turkey's first nuclear plant at Akkuyu, on the shores of the Mediterranean, in 2015, protestors had to be dispersed by water cannon.

Jan Beranek, the director of Greenpeace Mediterranean, told news agency AFP at the time that the seismic assessment in the area had been "totally inadequate" and accused the authorities of ignoring issues related to radioactive spent fuel which risked being transported through Istanbul on the Bosphorus Strait.

"There is no need for the country to set on a path of unpredictable nuclear hazards and this outdated, yet very expensive technology," he also said.

In Uzbekistan questions were raised concerning public consultation: a government poll suggested that 70% of Uzbekis are in favour of nuclear, however an independent poll conducted via social media showed only 39% in favour.

Interestingly, Jo'rabek Mirzamahmudov, director of the Uzatom state agency, told reporters that most of the people questioned "had not been aware of the plans to build the plant, but when they had the basic principles explained to them 70% spoke in favour."

Whilst this in itself appears highly dubious, so does the fact the Uzbek Environmental Party has officially come out in support of the programme, making them surely the only Green Party in the world to support nuclear energy.

The Uzbeki government's response to a May 2020 dam burst has, however, led to questions about Tashkent's ability to cope with a major environmental disaster.

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Major concerns have also been raised concerning the political implications of the project, which comes alongside the Kremlin's current efforts to draw Uzbekistan into its Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

"First, there is a clear understanding that although from a formal point of view the EAEU is an economic organisation, the Kremlin's motivation to draw Uzbekistan into this structure is clearly of a political nature. This decision, if it is final, has a double bottom: on the surface there are economic considerations, but at the bottom it is a political project. This is a step to the side of drawing Uzbekistan into the orbit of the geopolitical influence of Moscow," wrote Alisher Ilkhamov, a senior researcher at the University of London and a leading voice in the campaign against the proposed reactors in Uzbekistan in a report for Ukraines Center for the Study of the Army, Conversion and Disarmament.

Uzbekistan is expected to become a full member of the EAEU in 2022 or 2023.

ROSATOM.

The three plants discussed, in Belarus, Turkey, and Uzbekistan are all being built by ROSATOM, Russia's state nuclear power company, and all will use the VVER-1200 reactors.

Astravets

At Astravets on July 10th 2016 a major accident occurred when a 334-ton reactor vessel “fell from a height of 2 to 4 metres,” a significantly serious accident, and one which Rosatom tried initially to cover up.

In December 2011 another reactor pressure vessel sent to the Astravets site by Rosatom collided with a concrete column at a train station close to the Belarusian border.

There are reports of further alarming incidents, including an explosion at the plant in November of last year.

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In Turkey ROSATOM has on more than one occasion been obliged to fill in cracks in the foundations of the Akkuyu Nükleer Güç Santrali plant that were discovered before construction was even completed. This plant is due to go online in 2023. Such incidents are not restricted to the projects discussed during the conference: ROSATOM's record is very poor.

Mr. Cartwright told journalists after the conference "Unless they wake up, I guess Uzbekistan has all this to look forward to."

ROSATOM, he said, is an integral part of Russia's "weaponisation" of energy supply, and is used to further the country's foreign policy objectives.

His view echoed that of French Green MEP Michèle Rivasi, who whilst unable to participate in the event due to other commitments, did suggest in a statement that creating dependency in the energy sector is very much a part of the Kremlin's strategy.

While nuclear power is in decline in most countries of the world, Russia's state-owned ROSATOM is exerting strong political pressure on Central and Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Finland and Lithuania. In Belarus, two reactors in Ostrovets are being developed on credit by the Russian atomic agency Rosatom. They are supposed to reduce Belarusians' dependence on gas sold by Russia, except that they create a new dependence, since all nuclear fuel comes from Russia.

Michèle Rivasi MEP.

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko, Europe's "last dictator", has, as conference participant, writer Stephen Komarnyckyj pointed out, "always flirted with the re-unification of Belarus and Russia." However, whilst a treaty signed with Boris Yeltsin in 1999 guaranteed that he could continue to run Belarus as his own fiefdom, Putin sees Belarus and Ukraine as "Russian land."

In tying his energy sector closer to Russia - Belarus has modest natural resources, and relies on imports from Russia to meet most of its energy needs - Lukashenko who is struggling to manage a current period of civil unrest, may be hoping to maintain the status quo, knowing that Putin fears another "colour revolution" in Europe.

Belarus is also an important part of Russia’s gas transit corridor to Western Europe, although that fact will give Lukashenko negligible leverage.

During the conference Mr. Komarnyckyj explained how Russia has used, particularly in 2007, energy supply to exert influence over Lukashenko.

The conference concluded with a call for Uzbekistan to halt its nuclear programme while there is still time.

Again and again the competence and integrity of ROSATOM is called into question. Belarus and Turkey are committed, but Uzbekistan can still halt its nuclear programme. The country should also consider that post-Soviet countries - especially in Central Asia - are keen to move away from dependency on Russia whether this be in energy, security, or political terms. Uzbekistan should seriously review this ill-conceived project.

Gary Cartwright, EUToday publishing editor.

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Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune is a Paris-based freelance journalist, and an occasional contributor to EU Today. He has a background in intelligence gathering, and he specialises in business and political matters, with a particular interest in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas.

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